Patrick Stewart Bristol Old Vic, 1963; Royal Shakespeare Company, 1978-9; stars in new RSC production
Each time I come to Shylock, I come with a different perspective. The last time I played him, it was as a very brutal and angry man, a man not overly sensitive to the world around him, to his daughter, to Antonio. This time, I have found an individual who is more open and sensitive, still vengeful and angry but with seemingly more options.
One thing that has been the same in every experience is that somehow, in the company of actors, you find yourself being treated as an outsider: I’ve never been teased and made fun of more than I have on those occasions. People gang up on you when you play Shylock. But what keeps you coming back to him is that he has some of the most interesting, colourful and idiosyncratic language in Shakespeare. Nobody else speaks like Shylock. It sets him apart. And this was the brilliance of Shakespeare: he was the first writer to create character out of language.
Antony Sher Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987-1988
If you’re Jewish, you can’t avoid being interested in Shylock: it’s a terrific part in a very difficult play. Shakespeare writes him in three dimensions: the great “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is a wonderful cry of pain from an oppressed man, but when he flips, and becomes unreasonable in the trial scene, the man who has been persecuted becomes the persecutor. That is a syndrome that has fascinated me all my life because of my South African upbringing.
The opening scene with Antonio, where Shylock has to be polite to this person who despises him and whom he despises, reminded me of growing up in apartheid South Africa, the way black people would have to hold in their true feelings when dealing with their white “masters”. In rehearsal, we used apartheid as an example of violent prejudice. Although I had encountered mild antisemitism in my own life, I found it much stronger than anything I had experienced as a Jew.
Our production really emphasised the antisemitism of the Christians: they abused and spat at Shylock. I had an awful lot of other actors’ saliva in my beard, and when it’s your own beard you really want to shampoo it all off. So there was no question of the play itself being antisemitic – because you could see how badly this Jewish man was being treated. You saw him being pushed to a level of revenge that is understandable, even if it is ugly.
Desmond Barrit Chichester Festival Theatre, 2003
My first thought when I was asked to play Shylock was, “But I don’t look Jewish!”, which is bizarre. We all have our ideas of what a Jewish person should look like, and probably most of those ideas are antisemitic. Then I got my costume, the items of dress that orthodox Jewish men wear. I looked in the mirror and thought: “I’m Jewish.” I realised that Jewish men are defined by what they’re wearing, as opposed to what they look like themselves, and that “uniform” is at the root of antisemitism.
But I don’t think it’s an antisemitic play. It’s the opposite: it’s the loner against the rest of the world. Shylock is in the minority and he’s being victimised. Such is the nature of the piece that, when we started rehearsing, I felt outside of everything. I felt that I was being alienated by the rest of the cast, that I wasn’t being included in social activities. It was the nearest I’ve got to feeling everything about a character during the rehearsal period.
Henry Goodman National Theatre, 1999
It’s important to understand that the play is set in a mercantile environment, hence all the issues it raises about money and what is of value in life. One of the necessities of capitalism is that everybody needs everybody else to do business. Playing Shylock, I was made alert to his humour: he has a carapace of surface geniality, which comes from hiding a lot of hate, frustration and bile; but his civilities are also an attempt not to let the people around him destroy his faith in himself and his religion. He is a dysfunctional human being, but I don’t think he is aggressive on a daily basis. When pushed, the horrors that are deep inside him come out, because of the way he’s treated socially and because of the flaws within himself.
What’s exciting in a role like this, as with Lear or Richard III, is to try to show that this man is capable of tenderness and compassion, but has good reason to behave appallingly. If you try to make him sympathetic, you won’t show the ugliness of his behaviour.
Paul Rider Derby Theatre, 2011
You play Shylock with trepidation, because there is so much inherited baggage. The pound of flesh that Shylock demands is central to your understanding of the play, but why does he pursue that to the bitter end? As I worked on it, I found I understood: he’s a widower; his daughter steals from him and marries a gentile; and he’s left with this void, which he fills with the most negative of emotions, revenge. It didn’t make him any more pleasant a man, but a very human man, subject to all the fallibilities that humans are prey to.
I think the play is antisemitic, because of all the things that are said to him as a Jew and done to him as a Jew; but the more vile the Christians are in their behaviour towards Shylock, the more that reflects back upon them. In the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, Shylock compares himself to the Christians. The great tragedy is that he chooses to behave as badly as they have towards him. He’s a charismatic character who lets himself down.
Angus Wright Royal Shakespeare Company, 2008
My preconceptions of Shylock were overturned by playing him. I realised the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech isn’t a pleasant manifesto for living together. It’s not about an equality of liberal humanism – it’s about an equality of revenge. I found that darkness in him fascinating. How do you play the part honestly, without pandering to liberal sensibilities?
The challenge for an audience, since the Holocaust, is to deal with a villain who is a Jew, and that isn’t easy. Shylock should really be a small part – he’s in only five scenes – but he breaks the confines of the play. There is something about his language, about the way he expresses himself in the face of incredible opposition and hatred and disgust, that makes an audience prick up its ears.